Kohat, Pakistan — More than 100 kilos (220 pounds) of pure heroin lay heaped around the feet of the customs officers. The men posed proudly for the cameras, breaking open individual bags of the narcotic and clumsily splashing the white powder all over themselves in their rush for the limelight.
The scene was a local customs office about 75 miles southeast of Landi Kotal, and the event this past summer was a press briefing to announce the second-largest narcotics seizure in Pakistani history. Clearly, the customs officers were aware that this haul was easily worth $24 million wholesale in the United States, perhaps $200 million retail.
According to the assembled officials, the heroin was confiscated from secret cavities in two trucks by alert agents manning a roadblock. Along with the heroin, 1,000 kilos of first-quality hashish and 340 kilos of opium were seized. It was enough to make even the legendary French Connection pale by comparison.
''What happened to the smugglers?'' this reporter asked. ''Are they in jail?''
''Oh, no. Unfortunately the smugglers escaped,'' the chief officer replied nonchalantly. ''There was a big gun battle, and they escaped. You know how these tribesmen are - very dangerous. But inshallah,m by the will of God, none of my men were killed. We were very lucky, and. . .we have captured the narcotics.''
The cynical observer might remark that, indeed, Pakistani customs officers must be the luckiest in the world, so often does one hear that ''the smugglers escaped after a vicious gunfight, though luckily no one was hurt.'' The even more cynical might regard seizures like this one at Kohat as a sort of poll tax, paid by traffickers to keep local police happy by giving them highly visible drug busts with which to keep their own superiors satisfied.
''Like every country, Pakistan also has a problem with corruption,'' conceded Jehangir Khan, district commissioner of customs in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. ''Salaries for our men are very low [about $100 per month], and the smugglers have very much money. Also, narcotics have only been banned for three years, so this is a new idea for many people.''
''But why talk just about Pakistan?'' he asked pointedly. ''Didn't you Americans have some problem recently with narcotics disappearing from a New York police station?''
Corruption. Any discussion of police activity against heroin traffickers inevitably comes around to this issue, and to be sure, it is a problem in Pakistan as perhaps it is everywhere. But however prevalent corruption may be, it is not the principal roadblock to the severing of the Khyber heroin trail to the West. Rather, a host of even more intractable problems have so far prevented law enforcement from significantly slowing the heroin traffic.
In the first place, Pakistan has some of the most rugged, least regulated frontier in the world. Thus it is not too difficult for smugglers to export tons of heroin annually by air, sea, and land to Europe and the United States. The land route especially - south through Pakistan, then across Baluchistan to the Middle East and Europe - is nearly impossible to police.
As an American diplomat in Pakistan put it: ''If the Russians can't close Pakistan's western frontiers with 100,000 soldiers, how . . . can the Pakistanis?''
Officials say, therefore, that the logical focus of suppression efforts should be the tribal areas where the opium poppy is first grown and then converted to heroin prior to shipment. But here again, the task is not so easy, as the chairman of the Pakistani Narcotics Control Board, Miraj Hussain, observes.
''Opium has only been banned in the settled areas since 1979,'' he explained during an interview in his Islamabad office recently, ''and already we have gotten many farmers to substitute maize, wheat, or groundnuts for the opium poppy. We have cut opium production from 850 metric tons [850,000 kilos] in 1979 to maybe 200 tons or less.''
Unfortunately, Mr. Hussain conceded, this is not enough - fewer than 50 metric tons can satisfy the entire American market - and his agency has had a tough time trying to wean farmers in the tribal regions away from poppy cultivation. In mid-1980, for instance, tribal chieftains threatened fines for any farmer who destroyed poppy fields under government pressure.
In the opinion of Doug Wankel, agent in charge for the US Drug Enforcement Administration in Pakistan, heroin traffickers are not likely to be put out of business simply by aiming for a reduction in poppy cultivation anyway.
''Whatever the Pakistanis do,'' observed Mr. Wankel, ''there are several hundred more tons being grown each year in Afghanistan that are brought into tribal areas here for conversion to heroin. Given the war there, that will probably continue for some time.''
Officials have concluded that the key to knocking out the Khyber Connection is the destruction of heroin conversion facilities in the tribal areas of Pakistan. This is the most important, the most vulnerable link, in the trafficking chain to the West. But again, this may prove to be an unreachable goal, as a recent incident in the tribal town of Darra - halfway between Kohat and Landi Kotal - illustrates.
Last March, an undercover free-lance narcotics agent located a major heroin laboratory while supposedly making a purchase in Darra, a town well-known to tourists for its handicraft arms industry. The agent, who asked to be identified by the name Jim, is actually a former heroin user recruited on a fee-per-arrest basis by the DEA's Wankel.
''This lab was just 30 yards off the main street in Darra,'' Jim recalls, ''and I had them cold. I even got some photographs of the lab itself.''
So, armed with Jim's information and at Doug Wankel's urging, Pakistani police moved in. This was after they had first notified and received permission, of course, from the political agent in charge of the tribal agency surrounding Darra. What happened next is somewhat difficult to pin down, owing to the confusion of events. But piecing together information from various sources, this picture emerges:
A small force of police raided the lab, but the lab operator was nowhere to be found, having apparently been warned to temporarily relocate himself. The police, however, were themselves soon surrounded by an angry crowd of local tribespeople who objected vigorously to their presence.
''The elders in town were really upset,'' Jim recounts. ''They told folks that if they allowed the cops to come onto their land to capture smugglers, pretty soon the authorities would come and take away all their rights. It wasn't so much that the tribesmen approved of heroin smuggling; it was a classic struggle over sovereignty.''
Frightened by the angry crowd, the police called in reinforcements. The tribesmen massed and responded by arming themselves, say witnesses. As can happen in such circumstances, a few government vehicles were burned, and both sides prepared for war.
The government rushed 1,000 men from the army's elite Frontier Scouts to the scene, which surrounded the town, reportedly setting up armor and artillery positions in preparation for an assault. Not intimidated, the tribesmen are said to have brought out their own light artillery and heavy machine guns (after all, these people have been battling Soviet forces across the border) and set them up at strategic points along the hillsides. There followed a tense, three-day standoff.
To the surprise of no one familiar with the tribes' reputation for ferocity, the government of Pakistan blinked first. Ending the confrontation as gracefully as possible, the Frontier Scouts reportedly withdrew in exchange for a token act of contrition by tribal leaders - they handed over a few dozen old and mostly worn out rifles as compensation for the burning of the government vehicles. More painful to the tribe was the temporary ban on tourist travel to Darra which Islamabad imposed.
The Darra incident brings into focus the magnitude of the law enforcement problem. Along with their other herculean tasks, officials must resolve the geopolitical Catch-22 that stymies efforts to close down the heroin labs in the tribal territories: Putting too little pressure on the Khyber Connection merely gives a green light to those who would flood America and Europe with ever-increasing torrents of the deadly narcotic.
On the other hand, putting too much pressure too quickly on the tribal dealers risks confrontation, even warfare, throughout their 600-mile stretch of frontier bordering Afghanistan. Such conflict would benefit no one but the Russians, who would welcome the deflection of tribal wrath away from themselves. Washington surely would not wish to see Pakistan thus destabilized and forced into political compromises with the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan.
Thus the future, although it certainly is not hopeless, does not appear to be particularly bright either. A just-released report called the Narcotics Intelligence Estimate warns, ''The prospects for effective enforcement action in the region remain bleak.''
This report - assembled by a joint committee of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Coast Guard, Federal Bureau of Investigation, State Department, Customs Service, Department of Defense, and other agencies - also sounds a grim note of alarm as to the expected trends in narcotics abuse through 1984:
''The availability of Southwest Asian heroin in the United States is likely to increase,'' it declares. ''Because of greater availability, new (i.e. younger) users will probably be drawn into heroin abuse. Southwest Asian heroin, now predominant and readily available in the Northeast corridor [of the United States], will continue its westward spread.''
While drug officials ponder their next move, one thing seems clear: America has only just begun what promises to be a long and painful association with the Khyber Connection.
Other articles ran Nov. 9 and 10.